Are We Slaves to Our Genes?

by Stephen Mills on April 26, 2009

Genes

This is the classic nature vs. nurture debate.  It is a topic that fascinates me and one in which I have now reached my third major, and I hope, final position.  I was spurred to write this because of something Glen said over at PluginID with his latest post: Personality Development: Be Who You Want to Be.

He said:

“I don’t think I like the idea that our personality and specifically our behaviors are largely proven to be based around our genetic make-up.”

Way back in the 70’s I was nurture all the way.  I believed we were born tabula rasa (blank slate) and that we were built by our environment and our choices.  Back in those days nurture ruled the debate.  There really wasn’t much of a debate at all.  That’s what everyone thought.

By the end of the 90’s, nature had slam dunked nurture into the waste bin of history.  The evidence was overwhelming.  Even though I didn’t like it, I was resigned to the fact that we were largely a product of our genes and the interaction between those genes and the environment.  I’m very scientific and the evidence was powerfully convincing.  I chose to believe the evidence and not my wishes that it not be so.

Now as we draw to the end of the 00’s (boy that sounds weird to say), I have a new position.  It is not simply 50/50 nature/nurture.  I have decided, and I didn’t read this anywhere – it just slowly dawned on me, that there are two questions.  The answer to the first is nature, and the answer to the second is neither nature nor nurture.

Question 1: Are humans as a population largely the product of their genes?

In many ways, I am sad to report, the answer to this question is yes.  I’m not going to argue the point here, but there are many resources on the Internet as well as a wealth of books that argue that fact persuasively.  This is one case where statistics do indeed prove the fact.  One of my favorites is now a classic of sorts even thought it was published only seven years ago: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Studies show that identical twins adopted at birth, raised apart, and never knowing each other are extremely similar.  Biological siblings adopted at birth, raised apart, and never knowing each other are about as similar as biological siblings raised together in the same family, but they are less similar than identical twins.  Unrelated siblings adopted at birth and raised in the same family are not much more similar than people randomly chosen from the street.  Children adopted at birth and raised apart from their biological parents are about as similar to those parents as are children raised by their biological parents.

This was all shocking to me and difficult to accept when I first read about it.  It seemed to slam the door shut to much of our free-will.

This is just one small area and it goes on and on.  The evidence converges from many different directions and is almost irrefutable, at least with our present knowledge.  But this is all missing my main point, which is the answer to question 2.

Question 2: Are individuals a slave to their particular genes?

Here I believe we get an entirely different answer.  My answer is an emphatic NO.  You can’t prove this statistically and it is a much more subtle argument, but it is a position that has allowed me to reconcile my personal experience and observation to the powerful scientific evidence referred to in question 1.

You may think this answer contradicts the first answer, but it does not so let me explain.  It may be indeed true that with large populations genes rule.  But that is a statistical fact about the whole and does not take into account individual variations.

For example, you may study 1,000 pairs of identical twins adopted at birth and raised apart.  You may come up with a personality correlation coefficient of .70  (I don’t know what it is, that’s just a number I threw out).  But within that set of 1,000 pairs, you could have a number of twin pairs that in fact are dramatically different from their identically genetic sibling.  Even with that, the average correlation coefficient remains very high.  So as a rule, identical twins may be very close, but that does not mean they have to be.  And this my friends is the crux of the matter.

It is my opinion that we tend to follow our genes.  The overwhelming majority of individuals just go with the flow of their natural tendencies. I think that is a fact which has been clearly demonstrated.  Let’s face it, people are lazy.  But that does not mean we are slaves to our genes.  That does not mean we cannot overcome them.  Here is  just one example that I think most people will readily understand.

Weight – this is an area where opinions run high, but it is clearly something under the control of our behavior.  There are individuals who can eat like a horse and never put on excess weight.  There are others who without doubt have to be very careful or they balloon up rapidly.

I tend to the slim side genetically and thus it is much easier for me to lose weight than most other people.  In fact, I had to abuse my body horribly to get fat.  Had I spent those 30 years eating normally and being normally active, I would have been a fairly slim person.  Instead I had to lose over 70 pounds to get back into shape about 10 years ago.  I immediately started the abuse again and went back up slowly, and it took a long time to overcome my genetic tendency to be slim both times.

I know other people who tend to be heavy and pack on the weight.  And yet, through consistent effort they have gotten themselves into decent shape.  A couple of them have achieved superior fitness.  There are literally millions of example of both directions.

Still, if you study the genetic tendencies of the population as a whole, you will find that, as a whole, the population is ruled by its genes for weight.  Within that whole, there are millions of example of people overcoming their genetic tendencies.  The same thing would apply to all genetic tendencies to greater or lesser degrees depending on the trait.

The conclusion here is that you are not a slave to your genes.  You are responsible.  Just because most people don’t bother to overcome their genes, doesn’t mean that they or you are a slave to them.  Yes, it may be easier for me to lose weight and keep it off than it is for you, but we both can do it.  Just because nature dealt you a different hand does not mean it is not within your power to change, nor does it absolve you of your responsibilities.  There is without doubt many genetic traits that make it easier for you to do something than it is for me.  I can’t even draw decent stick people and my wife draws naturally and easily.  However, if I put my mind to it and tried, I could learn to draw like her.

You can do whatever you want so get off your butt and do it.  Stop blaming your genes for your problems because that is not the whole picture.  You can do it, you have just chosen not to because it is hard.  This may take away your convenient excuse, but I choose to look at it the other way.  To me, the fact that we can overcome our genetic tendencies opens up a world of boundless possibility.

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Living Free — The Rat Race Trap
July 4, 2009 at 5:18 am

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Glen Allsopp April 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Hi Stephen, it seems like you’ve gone really in-depth on this which is great. It is a ‘shame’ I guess to see a lot of things are genetic, but I guess that is why we have evolved into the most dominant species. I have no doubt anyone can be who they want to be, seeing shy, unconfident friends becoming the life and soul of any situation. And the miserable, depressed family members shedding a positive light on everything.

Cheers,
Glen

P.S. It’s easy to refer to 00′s as the naughties ;)

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Roger | A Content Life April 26, 2009 at 7:04 pm

I really appreciate the science you use to support your posts!

I guess you’re really getting at the variance around the mean and I think your right. However, is it possible that some genes are more “powerful” than others? In other words, some genes may impose small control over our ability and behavior. In those cases, we could clearly override those genes. But some genes may impose large control over our ability and behavior and we may find it almost impossible to override those genes. There could a great deal of variance to the variances. :)

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills April 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Nice article Stephen,

It has been said that genetics is the stage upon which we act out our lives. There are literally hundreds of different variances that can alter any genetic predisposition. Tendencies may make certain thing easier for some, and more difficult for others but outside of the extremes, we always have a choice.

Nobody knows exactly where genetic influence ends and environmental influence begins. We all have inborn strengths and weaknesses and we all have learned likes and dislikes. Some combination of these factors will find expression in every aspect of our life.

All my life I have been into weight lifting, it’s my exercise of choice. However my genetics are more like that of a runner. The result is that, even though I will never be an Arnold, I have kept myself in really good shape. So within the limits of my genetic potential, I have been able to make impressive changes in my physique. For someone with more favorable genetics my progress might not seem like much, and that’s OK because I did it for me, not so I could compete with them.

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Stephen Mills April 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm

@Glen, thanks for stopping by to comment. Those are the kinds of things that drove me to come up with an explanation that was consistent with both my personal experience and the scientific evidence.

@Roger, thanks for your comments. Undoubtedly some traits are more genetically influenced than others. That is what I was referring to in the article when I said to a greater or lesser degree the weight example applies to all traits. Are there some that we might find impossible to change? Perhaps. I suspect this is the case for some truly extreme behaviors. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that there are some genetic traits that lead to severe psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and other abnormalities. Having said all that, I think what we generally refer to as within the range of “normal”, vague though that may be, is almost all within our control. The fact that people overcome all kinds of obstacles in this regard, seems to me to lead credence to that theory. If you know the story of “A Beautiful Mind”, you know that even something as historically incurable as schizophrenia (which is known to have genetic components) was overcome by the incredible power of will within the diseased mind of John Nash.

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Stephen Mills April 26, 2009 at 8:57 pm

@Jonathan, very well said. I like it! We don’t know exactly where it begins and ends, but in certain areas like personality traits genes do exert powerful, but not controlling influences. I think that most people follow their tendencies without exerting great effort to overcome them. That is why that trends across a large sample show such powerful genetic influence. You typed this while I was typing my response to Roger: “but outside of the extremes, we always have a choice”. I agree completely.

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills April 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm

@Stephen, isn’t it funny how we are often drawn to things that pose more of a challenge for us because they aren’t one of our genetic strengths. I get an extra degree of satisfaction when it’s something that didn’t come easy but I was able to make it happen anyway. I feel like I am stretching my genetic potential. So the question is, can we use our minds to alter our genetics? Whats your take?

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Stephen Mills April 27, 2009 at 5:49 am

@Jonathan, my answer to that would be I’m not aware of evidence for it yet. However, I believe we are using a tiny fraction of our mental potential and who knows what we are going to learn to do as we begin to harness more of that power. Also I agree that some of us want to do what is not easy. I take great pride in some of the things I have done that don’t come natural to me. Thanks for the conversation!

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rosa April 27, 2009 at 8:36 am

I think this is just a brilliant post. If we`re smart enough to realize we have genetic tendencies that are not very good for us, who says we can`t change them for the better? Saying we can`t do this or that because of our genes is just an excuse.

¨You can do whatever you want so get off your butt and do it.¨ (Loved this!)

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Christiaanh April 27, 2009 at 12:11 pm

A brilliant post, and a very interesting statement. It’s just as I though, you can indeed do just about anything you want, if you just get up and it and stop whining. People always tent to seek the cause of problems outside of themselves. As you said “You are responsible” …

I wonder if it will ever catch on to the general public though. Most people don’t want to be responsible and take the easy way you blaming others for their misfortune.

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Lisis | Quest For Balance April 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm

I’m torn on this issue… I believe both nature and nurture can play significant parts. I like Jonathan’s concept of maximizing what we can do “within the limits of our genetic potential.” But there are some things that are just genetic and no amount of willpower will overcome them.

You mentioned the John Nash case which, admittedly, is one of the genetic extremes. But it’s one that runs in my family; my sister is schizophrenic (a trait she inherited). She does the very best she can with it, seeks treatment, takes the meds, has a supportive family and work environment… but she will always be a slave to it. She may manage it (within the limits of her genetic predisposition) but she will never defeat it.

I like your two-tiered approach to this: as a race, humans are genetically predisposed to certain things; as individuals, we can often overcome significant genetic disadvantages… to some degree. ;-)

And I really like Glen’s term for the 00′s (Naughties? I’d never heard that!)

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Stephen Mills April 28, 2009 at 6:00 am

@rosa, Thank you and I agree completely.

@Christiaanh, Thank you very much. I don’t know, but I don’t have high hopes for the general population.

@Lisis, I don’t think there is a lot of benefit it trying to worry about the extremes. There are always exceptions and, where that line is exactly, I don’t think anyone knows. But I strongly believe that through the great range of “normal” behavior and traits we have tremendous control. Thanks for stopping by!

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Diego August 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Haven’t you thought that perhaps the ability to overcome genes is a phenotypic expression of (a) gene(s)? If this were the case it would explain why statistics are statistics and a few of us can “overcome our genes”, while most can’t. What I mean is that there might be a genetic predisposition to being able to say: “wait, what am I doing? OK, I’ll stop and do otherwise”. However, if this were true we wouldn’t be really defeating our genes. It would be just a gene defeating another gene (don’t mind the issue about a single gene, linkage or gene complexes).

I just can’t believe we are the only species in the world capable of, somehow (some magically ‘how’), contradict our genes. How is that even possible? It seems to be anthropocentrism once again.

It is too often that I hear biologists claim we can’t derive ought from is, but I think they are too self-consciouns because of the whole sociobiology controversy back in the 70′s-80′s. I just can’t be satisfied with simply hearing ‘we can. Period’. I need to know how we are supposed to achieve that and until then I remain suspicious about the statement. Do you know of any such research?

For example, one may believe that since males (because of testosterone) are “genetically” violent and violence is frowned upon by society (Is this really the case? Well, let’s just assume it for the sake of argument) then we are overcoming our genes. But we are also genetically moral (Kurzban, Hauser), and so, the question becomes genes vs. genes. So might it not be the same as what my initial question implies?

Interestingly enough, if the self-inspection and will power necessary to go against some genes is genetic, then probably people who possess those genes will always be a minority, since –just perhaps– they’ll go against the desire to leave progeny. Ironic? Haha. I’ll let you decide.

I’ll thank your views on this and hopefully you do know of some research about ‘memes versus genes’. Please, let me know if you do.

Regards

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Rok October 26, 2009 at 11:58 am

@Diego
are we are the only species that can consciously choose to deny natures biggest gene: urge to have kids? Our anti gene is our conscious, most people do things without rational thinking dough, thats why they can’t overcome their nature. But is then heaving conscious and live against your genes anti-nature and not normal?
Or is our conscious just finding new reasons to have offsprings without role of genes, like meaning of life?
I do not believe there is a simple answer to this questions, not rational ones.

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Rod July 1, 2015 at 5:01 pm

I want to be tall. Like 1,83 cm. I am 14 yo and i am 1,65 and my parents are not very tall. I trained (and still train) basketball so that i can get just a bit taller. But what if i can t reach the hight i want? What if there are some things that i would want to do, but i can.t because i.m not tall enough. Wouldn.t that make me a slave of my genes?

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